THE GOOD SPY: The Life and Death of Robert Ames
By Kai Bird
Crown, 430 pp., illustrated, $26
The idea of peace in the Middle East has been around for decades, almost always as an unreachable goal, a not-quite-solvable puzzle every American president has attempted, knowing that failure wouldn’t count against him, and success would be a miracle — and ensure a spot in the pantheon of world leaders. In this masterfully researched, compelling new book, Kai Bird tells the story of one CIA agent who came as close as anyone to putting it together. His death in the 1983 bombing of the US embassy in Beirut, along with the prior assassination of his closest Palestinian associate, signaled the end of a relationship that might, Bird argues, have translated into a region far more stable and tranquil than it’s been in the years since.
Good spies, it turns out, aren’t like we see in the movies. Born in PHILADELPHIA and educated at La Salle University, Robert Ames was drafted into the Army and later joined the CIA. He was brilliant and thoughtful, a reader and quick study with languages. Fluent in Arabic, he loved nothing more than talking to local people, visiting bedouins in their tents, chatting up merchants in coffeehouses. Married and the father of six, he wasn’t a risk taker in a physical sense, though his conversations with Ali Hassan Salameh, considered a terrorist by the US government, put both men in political and actual danger. Bird’s book is set in a world characterized by “layers upon layers of ambiguity,” but the story it tells is as clear and heartbreaking as any tragedy.
RACE HORSE MEN: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack
By Katherine C. Mooney
Harvard University, 321 pp., $35
When Kevin Krigger rode in the 2013 Kentucky Derby, he hoped to become the first black jockey to win the race in over a century (he didn’t). In his locker, Krigger kept a photo of Jimmy Winkfield, winner in 1901 and 1902, who had to make his career in Europe after racism ended a long tradition of African-American jockeys, trainers, and handlers. It is that history — of rich white men, enslaved black men, and the birth of American horse racing — that Katherine C. Mooney tells in “Race Horse Men.” Scholarly yet accessible, the book argues that far from subverting the racist notions of the slave-holding South, black horsemen were seen as “the perfect slaves, precisely calibrated extensions of a master’s will” and “central figures in turfmen’s vision of the harmony of a slave society.”
After the civil war, the same white elite men who bonded at the track came together to end Reconstruction. In envisioning postwar America, “based on the belief that the wealthy must be allowed to rule, that black freedom must be constrained,” these men looked to the world of horse racing to see “in miniature the hierarchical world they wanted.” Isaac Murphy, the pre-eminent jockey in the 1880s, demonstrated “what it would mean for a free black man to succeed against all comers,” but racist backlash — in the press, on the track — helped push him to an early death, at 35, in 1896, the same year Plessy v. Ferguson inaugurated a world of separate but equal.
THE MADWOMAN IN THE VOLVO: My Year of Raging Hormones
By Sandra Tsing Loh
Norton, 288 pp., $25.95
In this, her sixth book, Sandra Tsing Loh chronicles the myriad aggravations and humiliations she faced as she confronted middle age: More specifically, she takes on the mystery that is perimenopause. Some of what she suffers is more or less universal — hot flashes, bloating, rogue hurricanes of emotion — and as Loh points out, she’s not alone; thanks to changing demographics, she argues, “[b]y 2015 nearly half of American women will be menopausal.” And because so many of us have our children later these days, more households will be like hers, where a menopausal mother parents two preadolescent daughters, and “[e]veryone is on her own personal emotional roller-coaster.”
Loh’s writing is sharply observant and mordantly funny (“[s]aying a woman may have ups and downs during menopause is like calling Sylvia Plath a tad skittish”), and at times — as when she ponders her daughters’ inheritance of worry and sadness — extremely moving. A few chapters feel like padding, though — do we really need to read the contents of her in-box? — and an author’s note about the use of composite characters makes it hard to invest emotionally in the romantic dramas Loh sketches. Still, anyone currently riding the menopausal wave — or even just seeing it on the horizon — will find this book a bold and witty guide.
THE THIRD PLATE: Field Notes on the Future of Food
By Dan Barber
Penguin, 486 pp., $29.95
Why are good chefs so often good writers? Perhaps it’s got to do with the ability to really notice things — to see, smell, touch, and taste everything in front of you. The way Americans eat is all out of whack. Dan Barber isn’t the first to confront this. But his book, which combines memoir with looks at culinary history and food production, feels as if it’ll endure in a crowded shelf of laments, scoldings, and advice about how to cook and eat better.
The executive chef at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a New York farm-cum-restaurant, Barber has trademarked his motto, “Know Thy Farmer,” and here he extends the commandment further: Eating well, he argues, requires a knowledge of the land itself, the seeds the farmer plants, the miller who grinds the grain. In a series of conversations WITH VARIOUS EXPERTS, Barber explores ideas of sustainability, tradition, and cuisine.